Opportunity clicks Mt. Pleasant firm matchmaker for students, manufacturers

Casey Welch, co-founder of Stem Premier (right), works with Stokes Player, a senior software architect, in the technology firm’s Mount Pleasant office.

As a former kicker for Purdue University’s football team, Casey Welch knows how the recruiting game works in the college sports arena.

These days, he’s working to bring that same technique to the business world.

“If there’s a seven-foot basketball player in the eighth grade, everybody in the country knows who that kid is,” said Welch, co-founder of Mount Pleasant-based STEM Premier. “But what about the architect, the welder, the nurse or the engineer?

“Sports does a great job of getting students early,” he said. “Dabo Swinney doesn’t start to recruit students during their senior year of high school. He starts early when he sees the talent. So we thought, why isn’t there something like that in the academic and technical sector?”

That’s how Stem Premier was born in 2013, the creation of Welch and co-founder Donald Tylinski, an educator with 35 years of experience in public school districts. The company, with backing from The InterTech Group Inc. and the South Carolina Research Authority, created a website — stempremier.com — that helps students, colleges and businesses connect with each other.

Last week, the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance announced a partnership with Stem Premier called Future Makers, which hopes “to connect the dots to opportunities,” according to James Richter, the alliance’s marketing director.

Future Makers aims to build on Stem Premier’s ability to steer high school students toward secondary education opportunities and, ultimately, careers with advanced manufacturers relying on a workforce with STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — skills, like Boeing Co. in North Charleston and BMW in Greer.

“Future Makers is the best of the public and private sector coming together to open the world of manufacturing and technology careers to children and their parents,” Lewis Gossett, president and CEO of the manufacturers alliance, said at last week’s launch ceremony. “It is here that we will ensure that South Carolina meets workforce needs for years to come.”

Future Makers has its own website — scfuturemakers.com — that outlines the types of careers that are available, how much they pay, what training is needed to get the jobs, where to get that training and success stories of those who’ve made their mark in manufacturing.

“We started with the idea of how do you make manufacturing look cool?” Richter said, adding that many people still think of dirty mills and dangerous conditions when they hear the word manufacturing.

“We created a very simple brand — Future Makers — because these are the people who are going to be making things for the future and, at the same time, making our futures better,” Richter said. “So we started to lay out the case that this is what manufacturing is like now, these are your opportunities and here are the ways to get it.”

Information such as the number of South Carolina’s new manufacturing jobs — 74,000 of them announced in the past five years — and the earnings potential — 30 percent better than average S.C. workers — are prominently displayed on the website’s home page.

There also is a link to the Stem Premier site, which is kind of like a Facebook for careers.

Students who are age 13 or older can create a free profile on Stem Premier’s website. That lets them post information such as the colleges and careers they are interested in, resumes, grade transcripts, test scores, letters of reference, examples of their work, videos and basic demographic data, such as where they live.

Businesses and colleges can post similar profiles, allowing them to interact with students.

“Instead of a company yelling from a megaphone, they can come onto the Stem Premier site and search for talent by geographic location or other criteria,” Welch said. “As a company, I can get to students earlier, let them know about a scholarship program or internship. They can send messages directly to one another. It opens a line of communication where colleges and businesses can build a rapport with students. It’s a proactive approach.”

Stem Premier has about 120,000 students signed up from 12,500 schools in all 50 states. The company, which has a dozen employees, partners with groups such as the ACT testing company, which markets the website to students.

“They’ll say, ‘You’ve got your scores, now here’s a great place to showcase them,” Welch said.

The manufacturers alliance also is raising awareness of the program through Future Makers’ partnerships with school districts throughout South Carolina.

“At its core, economic development is all about creating opportunities and choices,” state Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt said in a statement. “The Future Makers initiative will help us accomplish this. Connecting students, parents and teachers with industry, this initiative will expose our young people to what the workplace is actually like in a variety of industries.”

Welch, who graduated from Purdue with a master’s degree in engineering and technology education, said he saw first-hand how manufacturing’s status declined. He grew up in Ford City, Pa., a factory town that fell on hard times when the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. shut down in the 1990s.

“I graduated from the same school my parents did — they graduated with 400 students, I graduated with 82. Manufacturing moved out, but I could kick a football far, so I got seen and I had opportunities,” said Welch, whose college highlight was a late-game field goal to beat Big 10 rival Michigan State in 2008. After college, Welch said he “looked back and realized there were a lot of other kids who had the skills and talent” but lacked opportunity.

“And they didn’t know where to look,” Welch said, adding that he hopes Stem Premier gives future students better access to careers than many of his classmates had.

Still in the growing stages, this is Stem Premier’s first partnership with a state-specific program.

“South Carolina is starting to get noticed,” Welch said. “They’ve brought all these businesses in and they’re attracting all this talent. Now, finally, someone is putting them all together.”

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_